New Centre thesis looks into how Baltic Sea management has come to change over recent years within HELCOM and the Baltic Sea Action Plan. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

New PhD thesis

How Baltic Sea management turned a new page

New Centre thesis shows changes in HELCOM’s Baltic Sea management happen slowly

Story highlights

  • Thesis includes text analysis of over 500 meeting minutes and reports from the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) between 1980 and 2010
  • She has focused on the shift from traditional sector-based to ecosystem-based management
  • Her thesis identifies a fundamental change of the perception of how the Baltic Sea is best managed

In autumn 2007 the countries around the Baltic Sea and the EU agreed on the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), a new management plan for the Baltic Sea, within the framework of the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) cooperation.

The action plan is based on so-called ecosystem-based management, representing a dramatic shift from a classic top-down and sector-based management.

How did it happen that the organization changed its view on how the Baltic Sea is best managed? This has been the focus of centre PhD student Matilda Valman's doctoral research.

Matilda has studied the intergovernmental cooperation HELCOM, which during four decades has been working to protect the Baltic marine environment. Within HELCOM representatives from nine countries' governments and sectoral agencies, the EU, as well as researchers, experts and environmental organizations have been cooperating.

The research project has focused on the change process in shifting from traditional sector-based management to ecosystem-based management - a management theory based on ecosystems, complex relationships and continuous change, which is a cornerstone of BSAP.

Slow changes do the trick
Matilda Valman has investigated to what extent this shift in the Baltic Administration has been matched by institutional and organizational changes within HELCOM.

The thesis investigates both fast and slow processes of change, by showing how the problem descriptions and solution proposals for the Baltic Sea has changed over time, and how well the organization HELCOM has responded to signals from the ecosystem. This has been done through text analysis of over 500 meeting minutes and reports from HELCOM between 1980 and 2010.

"My results show that changes in HELCOM happen slowly, and that the BSAP can partly be traced back to currents of new ideas that were introduced in the organization already in the 1990's"

Matilda Valman, author

"The BSAP could however be signed only 15 years after the first signs of institutional change, indicating high inertia in the management system. Additionally, the plan has so far had very little impact on how well and to what degree HELCOM detects, treats and reacts to information from the Baltic Sea ecosystem. In light of this, I wanted to understand this organizational inertia and where the new currents of ideas came from," she continues.

A shared perception
In the thesis she therefore examines how states and non-state actors within HELCOM organize themselves. The entry of new actors or new partnerships between actors could explain how and why a new idea, such as ecosystem-based management, gains a foothold in HELCOM's operations.

"My research shows, however, that no major changes have occurred in the composition of actors. In addition, there are no specific actors leading the development of HELCOM, but instead everyone involved seems to have changed their perception of how the Baltic Sea is best managed," Matilda says.

The results show that there is great potential for increasing HELCOM's adaptability, which is a cornerstone of a well-functioning ecosystem-based management model. Through shared learning followed by joint initiatives and negotiations, new ideas have been able to be introduced and put into action. In this way, an ideological shift in management methodology occurred in the Baltic Sea. It is however too early to draw conclusions about the consequences of this shift, both for the environment and the organization.

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Matilda Valman presented her PhD thesis at Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Department of Political Science on 5 December 2014.

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Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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